Experts Agree: Teach Your Kids to Get Along

This series on sibling relationships has been intentionally personal. We have enjoyed sharing our struggles and trials — and making some fun of each other along the way. A couple of my kids will be finishing up the series early next week, but today I want to deviate from family illustrations and stories to collaborated research about sibling relationships.

The reality is that siblings usually have the longest-lasting relationships in a person’s life. For example, my father died when I was 22 and my mother when I was 46. I have been married for 39 years and became a mother 34 years ago. However, I have been a sibling all of my 58 years.

Preparing for and writing this series (along with my kids) prompted me to do some secular research on this topic. Honestly, I didn’t know what I would find. But my research turned up some interesting stuff that has been confirmed in my own family:

  • The influence of parents is certainly weighty; but sibling influence is more significant than researchers anticipated.  Interestingly, also high on the influence list in the life of a young child are the friends of their older siblings. One researcher explained the possible reason for this: siblings and their friends are “closer to the social environments” of kids. Younger siblings, therefore, view older siblings and their buddies as cooler; therefore, they frequently imitate their actions and embrace their values over those of uncool or out of touch parents.
  • Undesirable behaviors are statistically learned more from siblings than from parents or other older adults. Things like smoking, alcohol consumption, criminal acts and sex outside marriage make a greater impression on kids when performed by siblings than by parents. For example, children may react to the negative consequences of parents who smoke or cheat by making a firm decision to avoid this behavior. However, when siblings engage in these things, younger brothers are sisters are far more likely to follow their negative example.
  • Children who grow up with siblings, especially those close in age, “may not need to [spend as much time with peers] because they are already having significant social experiences within the family unit.” This can help dispel the pressure parents feel to socialize their children (especially at young ages) with peers on a weekly or daily basis to be properly socialized.
  • I love this one (especially since two of my kids who have written posts emphasized having to reconcile and ask forgiveness growing up). Research indicates that siblings bicker or “squabble” between 6 and 10 times an hour (see, your family isn’t unusual!). This, experts say, “can help kids make developmental strides in a ‘safe relationship’ and provide good training for interacting with peers….”  In short, sibling arguments and conflicts — when handled properly — can actually be a good thing! This reminds me of Ken Sande’s excellent book, The Peacemaker, which teaches that conflict is inevitable and can actually glorify God. (More on that tomorrow with a resource recommendation we used with our kids.)
  • Children who have close sibling relationships are likely to have healthy adult peer relationships (including with their spouse).
  • Parent-mediated conflict resolution between siblings can help children develop a pattern of appropriate disagreement later in life. There is agreement from a wide range of secular researchers that leaving kids to themselves to resolve conflicts is unwise because kids aren’t good self-teachers. What kid is going to instruct him or her self to say, “Wow. I shouldn’t have smacked you when you wouldn’t give me the toy. Please forgive me. Let’s try that again and I will ask you nicely.” Patient mediation involves instruction and leadership, leading to a proper resolution. Researchers discourage parents from jumping in and manipulating kids to resolve things quickly and robotically, using similar attitudes and behavior (anger, harshness, etc) that mimics the child’s wrong doing.

Even those who don’t have a Christian worldview and who don’t adhere to biblical principles for relationship management agree: sibling relationships are really important.

Warmth and closeness between kids — along with wisely mediated conflict resolution by parents — can not only create a gospel-saturated culture in our own homes but can also prepare our children for the harsh realities of navigating life in a sin-saturated world.

When your child bonks his brother on the head and says, “If you don’t gimme that I’ll never play with you again!” or your teen reacts to her sister with eye-rolling arrogance and slams the door in her face, we parents can react in several different ways. If you’re like me, the first impulse probably isn’t the best one. Reacting in anger, frustration, exasperation or resorting to lecturing isn’t going to help. After all, “man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life God desires” (James 1:20).

I love how my daughter, Jaime, responded to my granddaughters recently when biting and hair pulling happened between them. In describing her own relationship with her sister, Janelle, Jaime told Annie and Danae, “When I was your age I didn’t like Nelly. She drove Mama crazy and I wanted to bite her and pull her hair.” Rather than fuss or lecture (which Jaime would be the first to admit is sometimes her response) she decided to demonstrate the gospel to her girls. (You can read the full story here.)

The gospel says we are more like our kids than we are different than them. We sin. We get angry, frustrated, irritable and selfish. We bite with words instead of teeth. And when we were young we did all kinds of mean things to our siblings — in our hearts and probably through our behavior. Empathizing with our children’s temptations and struggles opens the door to grace. If Jaime had launched in to a self-righteous lecture, Annie and Danae would have politely listened and maybe even mechanically apologized to each other to end Mom’s tirade about them needing to be nice to each other. But learning that Mommy, too, wanted to bite and pull her sister’s hair “qualified” Jaime to patiently instruct and correct them.

So let’s rewind the tape of Annie and Danae’s angry interaction. Jaime walks into the room to hear what happened and explains that she, too, wanted to do the same things to Nellie. The rest of the conversation might go something like this:

“Girls, Mommy knows how hard it is to love your sister. Nellie and Mommy were mean to each other. We argued and said mean things. Nellie messed up my stuff and Mommy made Nellie believe I didn’t love her. But now we are best friends because Jesus helped us. You can only really love one another and not bite and pull each other’s hair with His help. Jesus died on the cross so He could forgive you of what you did to each other just now, and so He could help you to forgive your sister.”

I don’t know what Jaime did after she talked to Annie and Danae. Perhaps she took them aside, corrected them and then brought them back to the very place where the biting and hair pulling happened. Maybe she “recreated” the scene and walked them through a better way to respond when your sister won’t give you what you want — patiently asking for it then coming to ask Mommy for help if things don’t go well. Kids don’t just need to be corrected for wrong doing; they need to be shown how to do things right. (It’s that put off/put on principle in scripture.) And then encouraged every time they choose to respond patiently rather than react angrily.

But whatever she did was humble. Empathetic. Gospel-driven. Why? Because the gospel says we and our children are sinful, flawed, weak creatures in need of a Savior to help us treat each other the way He treats us. But we and they are also loved, cherished and empowered to do this because He died to make it possible.

(I’ve done too much research to cite everything here and I purposefully chose well-documented, secular studies of which these are a few: “Early Sibling Relationships Influence Adult Behavior”; “US News and World Report Health”, July 31, 2009; “Positive Indicators of Sibling Relationship Quality”, University of Michigan, June 2003).

Those Who Stayed With Me

You can barely see Jaime in this pic…how could she not love a cute little girl like this? 🙂

Today’s post is from Janelle, our fifth, who is married to Eric and is an orthopedic nurse.

So far, you have heard from my younger brother, Jake, on the importance of forgiveness and repentance in sibling relationships.  Even though he dissed me and said my laugh is loud and annoying (ok… maybe it is) I wholeheartedly agree with him.  You also heard from my older sister, Jaime. I felt good when I read her post because I don’t ever remember us biting or pulling each other’s hair like her girls do – so there is definitely hope for Annie and Danae.

This post has less about what you can do to foster close sibling relationships in your own kids and more about how God uses bad circumstances to do good things between siblings. The pictures on this page are a testimony to God’s faithfulness…more on that later.

Let’s face it, when we are going through a great season where everything is going our way, everyone is being nice to us, the Lord is blessing, and our kids are being kind to each other (or in my case, my husband is being kind to me) it’s easy to cruise along and be happy.

But when I think back to the seasons of my life I felt closest to my siblings I remember the aftermath of difficulties and trials.  As a kid I was less aware of this than I am now.  However, after reaching adulthood, some of my sweetest memories with my siblings were during times of intense heartache.  Two of these memories stand out more than any others.

Oldest brother Josh. The tears started with him.

I was eleven when my eighteen-year-old sister Jaime got married. I didn’t think much about it. All I knew was that PJ was nice to me and that I liked him, and that Jaime and I weren’t close because she didn’t like me.  (Of course, it had nothing to do with me be an annoying little sister!) As time when on, however, I began to better understand what happened. You see, Jaime and PJ were keeping their relationship secret from our family because they knew Dad and Mom wouldn’t approve. This was the hardest thing our family had walked through. The months that followed were difficult as my parents, sister and new brother-in-law carefully walked through the repercussions of this decision. I remember Mom crying a lot and Dad being unusually quiet. I was fearful and anxious about the future. Our normally happy, loud house was sad and quiet.

Soon after the marriage Jaime wanted to take me to the mall.  I was surprised since she had never done this before. We laughed and hung out. I had the time of my life with a sister I secretly adored but had never been close to.  As we were walking she suddenly stopped, looked at me intently and said, “Missy, you have to promise me something.”  I had no idea what to expect.  “You have to promise that when you like a boy, even just a little bit, you will tell Mom and Dad and trust them.”  She was so serious and passionate I had no choice but to agree.

Tall brother Jesse. He always makes me smile.

I never forgot that promise to my sister.  I can point back to that moment as the moment we became friends.   In fact, she helped Mom plan my wedding and in May 2010 she was my matron of honor. Few were as supportive and happy as Jaime to see me marry the love of my life. Because she made me promise to trust my parents, Eric was the first serious relationship I had….and Mom and Dad were the first to hear that I had my eye on him.

The other memory finds me at my grandmother’s gravesite.  Nanny’s funeral had been both somber and joyous as we celebrated the fact that she was now in heaven with her Savior, her husband and her son — free from the cancer that had been diagnosed only weeks before. The previous months had been draining on our whole family.  Just two weeks earlier, and within days of Nanny’s diagnosis, we had moved to Orlando from the only home we had known; a home we shared with Nanny. Now one of my favorite people in the world was suddenly gone. After watching her coffin laid to rest, I wanted to escape all of it.  I couldn’t stand it anymore.  I moved away from everyone and broke down crying.  I had been crying all day but these were different tears; tears of despair and anger.  I didn’t notice him walking up but then felt Joey’s arm go around me.  He wasn’t one to show affection easily, especially to me, but he saw me crying and wanted to comfort me.  He didn’t say a word.

Sweet brother Joey. (With Jaime looking on.) I’ll remain forever grateful for his hugs.

What Joey didn’t know was that memory would stick with me through the extremely difficult time of going back to Orlando to no friends and the grief of losing Nanny. Mom and Dad were still trying to process and deal with her death, as well as the circumstances that led to our move in the first place. God used my providential loneliness to force me to the Scriptures for solace and comfort.  I don’t know what would have happened if Joey hadn’t silently comforted me.  Maybe I would have trusted God with my grief, but perhaps I would have turned into a bitter teenager who thought that God was cruel and unloving.  What I do know, however, is that moment brought me closer to a brother who put aside his personality to comfort his little sister.

These memories are only two out of probably hundreds.  Now that we’re all adults, my siblings and I continue to walk through trials and hardships.  I know without a doubt that we all have each other’s backs.  I know they sincerely want what is best for me.  And I know that the prayers of my parents are being answered through the good times, but mostly through trials.

My nearest brother Jake. We fought. We bickered. We became friends. And here we cried.

So please take heart.  God can forge a bond between your own children. He will use your prayers that will tested and tried through the flames of hardship, loss and grief. One my wedding day I experienced the love of my siblings in a profound way. My sisters were my attendants and my brothers surprised me with a reception dance where they each cut in to dance with me one by one. I will never forget their expression of love for me that day.

In Luke 22 we find Jesus reclining at the Last Supper with his disciples.  After breaking bread and drinking wine Jesus tells them one of them will betray him.  What did they do? Say things like, “Oh Jesus, thank you for being willing to die for us!” or “How hard this must be for you, to suffer and die!”  Yeah, no.

“A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.”

My newest brother PJ. He always liked me.

It reminds me of when all of my family is together at a birthday party and Mom initiates our normal tradition of honoring me – the birthday kid. But somehow the conversations turns to my brothers arguing about whose basketball career was the most impressive.  They all claim personal rights;  Joey because of his last second three pointer in the playoffs; Josh because he scored 1,000 points by his junior year; Jake because he….just because he’s the best at everything; and Jesse because he dominated the paint.  Okay, not a perfect analogy.

In His moment of greatest need Jesus could have said, “Guys!  I am about do DIE!  I am the greatest, you nimrods! How can you be thinking of yourselves at a time like this?!?”  Rather, He gently reminds them that the greatest would also be the one who serves.  But the most surprising thing to me that he says is right after.

“You are those who have stayed with me in my trials.”

That echoes in my heart.

Mom and Dad, you are those who have exemplified what it means to pray for your children through trials.

Josh, Jaime, Jesse, Joey, Jake, Julia…you are those who have stayed with me in my trials.

P.S. The rest of the story: Jaime and PJ will celebrate their 15th anniversary in March, and Dad and Mom love him. Well…mostly because he helped give them Kayla, Wyatt, Annie and Danae.

Bites and Hair Pulls Now: Friends Later

This is my oldest daughter, Jaime, with PJ and their adorable kids. Jaime is guest posting today as I continue a series on sibling relationships.

I have always said I should have been born first.  Instead, I was the second of seven. This meant that once I got old enough to babysit I did the cooking and cleaning; bathed the little ones; and was the one who reported to Mom and Dad when they got home, but Josh was still “in charge”.  He loved bossing me around until I was an early teen – that’s when I grew taller, stronger, and more athletic than him. (All of which he’ll probably comment on at some point, but believe me instead.)

Hey, we’re only 9 and 10 here…so certainly I out grew him soon after this! I’ve always loved my big brother!

But I am not here to talk about Josh’s past nightmares and bitterness but about how my parents did their part to help us kids to love each other.

I used to hear my mom introduce us as her “liter” at times.   She would laugh about how we all had to do everything together and never wanted to be alone.  I thought she was crazy since, at that time, all I wanted was to be alone. I idolized my neighbor friend, Christina, who was an only child who had her own room; daydreamed about what it would be like to not have Janelle tagging along and breaking everything I owned; wished I didn’t have to worry about Jesse saying something strange and embarrassing me in front of friends or total strangers; and resented Josh being the boss when I did all the work.

The reality is, Mom was right.  (She loves it when we say that!) Regardless of the moments when I craved solitude or sinless siblings, I wanted them around. This became most clear to me when I got married.  I found myself still going to pick up a kid or two to go to a movie, the playground or the grocery store.

The age gap lessened and now they really are my friends.

How did this happen?

First, we were homeschooled.  (Disclaimer:  I do not believe that you have to be homeschooled to have good sibling relationships or that homeschooling is for everyone. I am only sharing ways my parents instilled a love for each other in our particular family.)

Back when my parents started homeschooling there no homeschool co-ops and they knew only one other family in our entire county who was homeschooling. (No, we didn’t live in the hills of West Virginia but in suburban Washington, DC.)  Our “socialization” come from each other.  We were the basketball, front-yard soccer and street hockey teams; study partners; tutors; field trip partners and debate team competitors.  This created an environment where we had to rely on each other for friendship that other kids could easily find elsewhere.  Although annoying at times, and something I sometimes greatly disliked, I am grateful to be one of those rare people who is still best friends with those I went to school with.

Second, like Jake said on Friday, mom forced us to pursue reconciliation and and to ask each other’s forgiveness. That’s right, she literally forced us to apologize to each other. And she didn’t just make us apologize but also had us look at each other’s eyes and hug one another! Although that may sound like it was “fake” or wrong because it was mere outward behavior, it created in us the habit of righting wrongs.  Yes, at 14, when I had to apologize to 8-year-old Janelle (again) for yelling at her, my heart was not all there.  I may have been faking my regret, but I was developing a habit of going back and admitting I was wrong.  And Missy was developing a habit of practicing forgiveness. Regardless of what was going on my heart at 14, or 10, or 4, that habit turned into a conviction. Now I pretty routinely go back and ask for forgiveness when I have wronged somebody – even if I still don’t feel like it. In the process of asking my siblings for forgiveness hundreds of times, we  learned that having a tender conscience resulted in realizing we really did love one another enough to “get right” with one another. Over the years I learned my siblings not only know me best but were the first to genuinely forgive me – even and especially when my weakness and sin hurt them badly.

I may not have had the full regret and remorse of my actions at 14, but at 18 my actions rocked my sibling’s world; yet they were eagerly waiting to forgive me.  That heart continues. Last week I reacted impatiently and harshly to my brother, Joey. When I called to work things out with him he responded with,“I know you and knew we were already fine before this call.”  We may not have been so quickly “fine” as young children, but the practice of having to humble ourselves and be reconciled (at least on the outside) — instilled in us by my parents as young children – means now that we’re adults an apology isn’t even always required to forgive one another.

Through the many trials through which our family as walked, many people came and went. I’ve learned (the hard way at times) to rely on God, my parents, and my siblings…no matter what.  The trials were small when we were young (like having to share a room with my little sister) but as the trials have grown we now run to each other to reconcile.

Finally, and what might sound a little strange, is this: my parents told us to be and act like friends.  I can’t count the number of times we had conversations about the importance of friendship with our brothers and sisters.  As Mom has mentioned, she learned this from my Nannie and her siblings.  I hated the “I dream that someday you and Missy will be friends so you need to start treating her like one now” comments. I listened politely but argued in my heart. Yet, it had an affect.  I was a mean sister to her. But even when I thought I had damaged my relationship with Janelle too much, I had a glimmer of hope because Mom said it could happen.

Biting and hair pulling? These two cuties? Yep! But they do love each other.

After a recent fight between my two youngest girls (ages 4 and 6) I sat them down to talk. One had bit her sister, and the other retaliated by pulling her sister’s hair.  They were both crying and giving each other mean stares.  I asked them if their Aunt Nelly and Mommy were friends.  6-year-old Anniston said, “Yes, like best friends or something.”  “Yes, we are. But when I was your age I didn’t like Nelly. She drove Mama crazy and I wanted to bite her and pull her hair.”  They both stared at me with wide-eyed shock. I explained to them that they could be best friends when they grew up, were going to love each other so much and needed to treat each other kindly now because of that.  Afterwards, I “forced” them to ask forgiveness.  🙂

She loves to hear him come into her house...

Recently he surprised me by driving back from law school late one night…I love it when I hear him come through the door.

Days later I heard Danae tell someone that Annie would be her best friend. I smiled. I smile when I hear Kayla say the same unkind things to Annie that I did to Janelle or treat Wyatt the same way I treated Jesse.  Why does this make me smile?  Because I know that they are getting to know each other. They will know each other’s shortcomings more than anyone else. I smile more when I see them playing basketball out front together, or watch Kayla help Wyatt with math, or listen to one of them try to convince everyone to get in to pool because it’s more fun to all be together. I hear Mom in my own voice when I explain to Kayla that Wyatt is way younger than her now — but someday she will probably get really excited when she hears the front door open and realize it’s him coming over to talk about politics or sports or to watch a show with her. Yeah. Like when our hearts jump because Uncle Jakey just walked in.

My husband, an only child, now benefits from the relationship with my brothers and sisters as well.  They are his brothers and sisters and his best friends, too. I’m thankful that Mom and Dad homeschooled us, forced us to forgive (and love each other at times), and told us to be friends. Although it was certainly annoying as a child, I am now annoying my own children with faith that one day the first person they call when something annoying, happy, sad, devastating, or just random and funny happens is one of their siblings.

A Challenging Weekend that Ended Well

When we started our family back in the late 70’s our lives and church were full of singles and young couples without kids. Additionally, there were no books on Christian parenting. That’s right…none.

It actually turned out to be a blessing because the only resource we had was the Bible. As years passed and Benny started performing numerous weddings, couples started having children and our own family continued to grow. The thing we most often talked about with others was parenting. You see, most of us had been raised in the church but were worldly hypocrites who posed as Christians and got away with murder because our parents were virtually uninvolved. We didn’t want this for our kids….

We read the Bible and had many conversations about how to apply biblical truth to parenting. We certainly made our share of mistakes, including misapplying truth at times. Looking back, we also tended to focus more on outward compliance than inward change. Yet to us if the Bible said it we wanted to help our children embrace it.

One of the things we worked hard on was confession of sin or wrong, followed by asking forgiveness. The Bible talks a lot about confessing our faults and sins to one another (and to God, of course) as well as going back to the person we have hurt or sinned against to request their forgiveness. We felt that a big way to protect our kid’s relationships with each other was to do our part to prevent offenses from building up throughout their lives.

First, we didn’t allow our kids to tattle on one another. When one of them did something wrong or hurtful, their sibling was instructed to ask them go tell Dad or Mom (or whoever was in charge) what they did, rather than running to tattle. If the sibling refused, they could then come and inform us that something happened that their brother or sister refused to come and tell us. The bottom line was that we wanted our kids to confess their own wrongs, not those of others (which the Bible calls gossip).

This scenario rarely worked just right — especially when the child was first learning the ropes. More times than I can count, we had to correct the child who said something mean or acted unkindly twice….once for whatever they did to their sibling and once for not coming to tell us when reminded. But over the years they slowly learned to come and confess their wrongs. Our hope was that this repeated practice would teach them that confessing things to Dad and Mom (and then others) wasn’t something to avoid but to pursue. Confession should always be redemptive and restorative. Even when what they confessed required discipline, we tried to celebrate their willingness to tell us. Making it easy for the kids to admit to us that they had done something wrong was a priority to us. (More on that below.)

Here’s the problem with not allowing your kids to tattle and gossip: heart issues remain. Benny and I had to repeatedly remind our kids that coming to tell us that a sibling “did something and won’t come and tell you” with a vengeful, self-righteous heart was just as wrong as whatever that brother or sister did or said. But even these encounters were ministry moments with our children.

Second, we helped our kids to confess their wrongs and ask forgiveness. Our family was (and is) like every other family. Lots of fun and memorable stuff went on that was laced with selfish reactions, manipulation and down right meanness. Sibling “rivalry” is just a concise way of saying, “Put two siblings who can at least crawl into a room together and before long you’re bound to hear yelling or crying over something one or both did to the other.”

The Bible is clear: when we do something wrong to someone we must acknowledge it and ask forgiveness. Children aren’t exempted from this responsibility. Children who are trained to ask for and extend forgiveness over and over are more likely to keep their relationship clear of longterm bitterness that comes from repeated unresolved offenses.

Over the years, parents have lamented that this kind of commitment is just too hard. One mom told me, “If I stopped to consistently deal with issues between my kids like this I would never get anything else done!”

I agree. It’s hard work. And some days I felt like all I did was remind and correct my kids for tattling, trying to get their sibling in trouble, dodging responsibility for their sins or failures, and grabbing onto every peacemaking skill I had ever learned to teach them to be kind to one another.

But last weekend I saw decades of gospel-saturated forgiveness in action. An incident happened that resulted in three of the kids disappointing and hurting one another. There were numerous issues to discuss from the encounters. While not every aspect of the conversations went as well as we hoped, one thing was clear: asking forgiveness of their siblings was on the top of the list. My mother’s heart was warmed the next day when I knew my adult children were reaching out to one another to take responsibility for their contributions to the conflict.

It doesn’t always work this way in our family. Sometimes needed confession doesn’t happen or is forgotten. But I truly believe that teaching little ones to acknowledge and confess their wrongs and sins against each other can lead to adults who value their sibling relationships enough to make reconciliation a priority.

Perhaps our method is not the one you feel is best for your family or encouraging humility and acknowledgement of wrong is already something you practice with your kids. Remember that principles are always more important than practices that are not clearly spelled out in scripture. I would just encourage you to find and consistently implement a way for your kids to resist the temptation to gossip about one another and to ask for and extend forgiveness.

It’s just biblical.

P.S. Tomorrow my youngest son, Jake, will share his perspective on this issue…as well as mock his siblings for the many ways they required him to forgive them. Smile.

A Teacher Named Grace

Jillian plopped onto the couch to fold some laundry. It felt good to get off her feet after a long morning of household chores and refereeing bickering toddlers. Some days they get along well while others are marked by arguing, pushing, screaming and accusations. Today was one of those days.

“David and Stephen!” she yelled, interrupting their last encounter before lunch. “Stop it! Why can’t you treat each other nicely? Stop fighting over everything! This is ridiculous. You’ve been fighting all morning and I can’t take it anymore! You’re gonna eat lunch and go to bed…and…don’t plan on playing together this afternoon. If you can’t play nicely then you won’t play at all.” It worked. The boys stopped, ate their lunch and went into their rooms. The house was quiet. For now.

Tears formed in Jillian’s eyes. In the years before she and Robert started their family, none of the snapshots that passed through her mind were of kids who screamed when a sibling touched their carseat or angrily pushed each other over a cheap McDonald’s toy.

Parenting is hard work when things are running smoothly. Parenting is really hard work when kids are fighting. Few things grate on a parent’s nerves more than selfish bickering between kids who you just want to get along.

When my kids were young one of my favorite things was catching them serving, helping or showing affection to each other. When I came into their room in the morning to discover that Jesse had climbed onto the top bunk to share it with Joey; overheard Josh offer to carry something “heavy” for his sister; watched Jaime rock a newborn sibling to sleep; or noticed Jake climbing onto a sibling’s lap just for hugs, my heart melted. But when the arguing, selfishness, tattling or blaming escalated, I sighed with discouragement and sometimes fussed back to make it stop.

In recent years much has been written and taught about “gospel centered parenting.” Any time the gospel is used and applied in relationships God is honored and love abounds! If we’re not careful, parenting with the gospel in view can be perceived as allowing our kids to get away with wrongdoing because “extending grace” is confused with tolerance of sin. Biblical patience presupposes offense and then responds with Christlike forbearance and compassionate correction.

Allowing our kids to hurt, hit, push, speak harshly to and otherwise treat their siblings unkindly with mere lip service to correction is, in Benny’s and my opinion, a misunderstanding of the gospel. After all, the gospel is the good news that Jesus lived a sinless life, then was killed by the sins we and our kids committed (and are still committing) so we could be forgiven and be declared not guilty by a holy God. All we have to do is look at the cross to see the seriousness of sin.

Yet the answer to our kids’ sibling tension isn’t to sin back. Reacting to our kids’ inappropriate attitudes and behavior by either minimizing it or responding in kind isn’t gospel-centered. Jillian’s angry reaction to David and Stephen is easily understandable to anyone who has had more than one child. And sometimes it temporarily works! Her anger stopped the bickering. But yelling at them for yelling at each other simply teaches kids that it’s okay for Dad and Mom to treat them unkindly when they treat each other unkindly.

Parents who understand the gospel know we are just like our kids. The gospel puts everyone on level ground, even children and their parents. We are all sinners in need of a Savior. The truth is this: we parents get angry, bicker, and don’t like it when our preferences aren’t esteemed. We get our feelings hurt when someone wrongly accuses us — and maybe even when their accusations are correct! We get mad when someone messes up our stuff or interrupts us when we want to be left alone. And when it feels like we’re being attacked we push back in our “adult” ways.

Once Jillian learns that her kids are mirroring her own battles with self she will be less tempted to be wearied and angered by their mean-spirited or selfish interactions. Our sameness with our kids breeds compassion and patience. Rather than reacting in self-righteous “how can you treat each other like this?!?!?!” anger when they fuss and fight, the gospel teaches us to remember that even Jesus Christ was tempted in every single way we and they are (Hebrews 4:15). Yes, as a boy He was tempted to be angry, mean and selfish toward His siblings.  If He is understanding and loving toward our kids, we can be, too.

We, like they, are in a daily war with self.

Grace and understanding aren’t permissively tolerant of wrong. In fact, Paul defines grace as the teacher that instructs us (and our kids) to “deny ungodliness…and to live sensibly, righteously and godly” lives (Titus 2:12). Parents who understand biblical grace are both patient with how similar we are to our kids and eager to apply grace as the tenacious teacher who tutors them to stop treating their siblings in ungodly ways.

How can we introduce our kids to that grace? That’s what this series is about. Whatever my kids or I share, know that it comes from decades of mistakes followed by more humility that we’ve been capable of expressing. Once again, the gospel shines. Just when we are too weak to do our own denying of ungodliness God is there to help us in our weakness and bring hope for change –in us and our kids.